FBI chief: Locked phones will let criminals go free

The head of the FBI on Thursday warned that tech companies' increased efforts to keep prying eyes out of their users’ communications would end up leaving more criminals on the streets.

“If this becomes the norm, I suggest to you that homicide cases could be stalled, suspects walked free, child exploitation not discovered and prosecuted,” FBI Director James Comey said in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

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“Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or encrypted device.”

Comey’s remarks come weeks after Apple and Google announced that new iPhones and Android devices would be automatically encrypted to prevent anyone — even police with a warrant — from accessing someone’s data without their permission. Google and other Web companies have also announced plans to better encrypt communications to keep out hackers or government spies.

Comey and Attorney General Eric Holder had previously criticized companies’ desire to lock federal officials out, but the FBI chief’s Thursday statements are the most extensive official criticism of the tech companies’ moves so far.

The director listed a number of serious crimes in which data on a person’s cellphone were critical for stopping drug runners and murderers.

In Louisiana, for instance, officials were recently able to nab a child murderer who coaxed out a 12-year-old boy by sending him text messages pretending to be a teen girl. In Kansas City, Mo., officials used test messages to break up a drug ring.

Not being able to use those resources “will have very serious consequences for law enforcement and national security agencies at all levels,” Comey said. “It’s the equivalent of a closet that can’t be opened, a safe deposit box that can’t ever be opened, a safe that can’t ever be cracked.”

In the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about federal surveillance last year, many tech companies have suffered a loss of public trust that has cut back their profits by millions of dollars.

As a result, many have turned to technological means to reassure the public that their services are safe.   

Comey said the trend, though, was going too far.

“I suggest that it’s time that the post-Snowden pendulum be seen as swinging too far in one direction,” he said.

Instead, he said that a 1994 wiretapping law needs to be updated to make sure that all types of companies are required to allow federal agents to access information from people’s communications.

“I’m hoping we can now start a dialogue with Congress on updating it,” Comey said.